on the world: a view on human rights
As the Iraq War marks its eleventh anniversary on 20 March 2014, internal armed conflict in the country continues to spiral out of control and the security risk posed by armed militias is matched only by the arbitrary and unlawful actions of the Iraqi authorities. Ten years after shocking images of US torture of prisoners emerged from Abu Ghraib, the practice remains rife. Use of the death penalty has increased exponentially and arbitrarily in recent years. Thousands of prisoners remain in detention after completing sentences or are held for years without trial.
The security vacuum affects all sections of Iraqi society. Although the number of male prisoners far outnumbers female prisoners, the abuse of female prisoners within Iraqi prisons prompted Human Rights Watch (HRW) to investigate and report on this situation, leading to the publication of a report “No One Is Safe’: Abuses of Women in Iraq’s Criminal Justice System” in February 2014. HRW interviewed 27 women and 7 girls about their experiences. Many showed scars that are consistent with the torture they reported.
Women face the same abuses as men, including threats of and actual rape, from arbitrary arrest, to being charged and convicted on the basis of confessions coerced through torture and without adequate or any legal defence, and are sometimes not released following the end of their sentences. Men and women are also equally at risk of “disappearance” in prison. One woman told HRW: “Normally, in Iraqi society, a man beating a woman in public is impossible…. What’s happening to women shows that no one is safe.”
Women are at greater risk. The arrest of a woman brings great shame to the whole family, leads to the stigmatisation of the individual, leading some to leave Iraq upon release, and whether or not a female prisoner is raped, suspicions remain, marginalising the woman concerned further. Arbitrary, mass arrests are carried out against the female relatives of alleged militants, sometimes of entire families or villages, amounting to collective punishment. Women are also detained under the Anti-Terrorism Act to settle personal, political and tribal scores; statistics show that there are a disproportionate number of Sunni Muslim women in detention.
The practices reported “violate Iraqi laws and international standards on arrest and detention.” There is a lack of accountability for those accused of torturing prisoners and the Iraqi government’s official response has been to dismiss the claims as isolated incidents. Nonetheless, the frequency of the arrests of women, often as a punitive measure against their menfolk, has brought out the very insurgents the Iraqi government is trying to suppress to demand justice for these women and to put an end to these practices, leading to mass protests in 2012, along with protests against the brutal treatment of all prisoners, as part of Iraq’s own Arab Spring protests.
In January 2013, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki announced reforms to the criminal justice system. A year on, no changes have been made; instead, HRW states that the criminal justice system in Iraq “remains plagued by corruption and abuses against women from all sects, classes, and regions.”
Following the publication of this report, a meeting was held in the House of Commons on Tuesday 11 March, a few days after International Women’s Day, “No Woman is Safe”, organised by Tadhamun, Iraqi Women’s Solidarity, and hosted by Jeremy Corbyn MP.
At the meeting, Zainab Khan from Tadhamun talked through the issues raised in the report, particularly the personal and social effects of the unlawful arrests and torture in detention of women, through the stigmatisation and marginalisation of such women, and consequently of their children and families.
As well as the stigmatisation of female prisoners for possibly having been raped, women are often punished by being put under enormous financial pressure to pay bribes to have their male family members released from prison or even just to be able to visit them there. As in many other societies around the world, the imprisonment of the main or only breadwinner in the family is often financially devastating. A number of women attending the meeting added personal tales of friends and relatives having to sell possessions, such as land and jewellery, to free male and female family members from prisons where they are held without charge or on clearly false pretexts. The consequences for women and children can include homelessness and starvation.
Furthermore, in a society where the “honour” of women is a paramount issue to families and tribes, the longer the abuse continues and the government fails to take action, the worse the security situation will become, with revenge attacks as people take the law, which fails to protect women, into their own hands, perpetuating a state of lawlessness the Iraqi government does not seem to have the will to deal with.
Poignancy was added to the testimonies in the report by the testimony of Narmeen Saleh Al-Rubaye, who read out a statement about the torture she faced at the hands of the US occupation forces for 16 days in 2004, when she and her husband were arrested in Baghdad in a roundup of suspected militants. Showing that much of what is done by the Iraqi authorities today replicates what was done by the US military and its allies a decade ago, she reported having been subject to electric shocks, held in a 1x1m room, subject to sleep deprivation and threats of rape. Pregnant at the time, her daughter was born with cerebral palsy as a result. Her husband, a Jordanian-American national who was arrested at the same time, remains in prison in Iraq and has been alleged tortured at Camp Nama and Abu Ghraib, where he is currently held. Accused by the US of involvement in terrorism, he was instead convicted by an Iraqi court on the false charge of entering the country illegally. Narmeen Saleh managed to leave Iraq in 2006.
Mike Phipps, a founder of and activist with Iraq Occupation Focus gave an overview of the current situation in Iraq, particularly in Fallujah. Almost half a million people are reported to have been displaced by fighting in Anbar Province, where Fallujah is located, since the end of last year. Using the unsubstantiated pretext that the violence is instigated by Islamist militants, the Iraqi government’s ongoing crimes against its own people go unchecked and uncriticised by the international community. Instead, the US and other countries are supporting the Iraqi government with arms sales, intelligence and training for soldiers. While NGOs and activists cite ongoing human rights abuses in the country and the worsening financial situation for ordinary Iraqis, leading to a rise in organ trafficking, sex trafficking and child slavery, instability and chaos has made Iraq a lucrative market for foreign states: “business opportunities, it seems, trump the luxury of human rights, even when it would have politically expedient to champion them in the past.”
As well as the current situation, Phipps raised the ongoing need to investigate Britain’s war crimes in Iraq and its involvement in prisoner torture there, which cannot be ignored. Along with governments, Phipps criticised the mainstream media for its complicity: “In the little noticed al-Sweady Inquiry in London, British soldiers ten years on stand accused of the torture and murder of Iraqis in their custody. Corpses showed evidence of “eyes missing, tongues cut out, and noses cut off”. Human rights abuses – but no-one’s interested.”
Well-known Iraqi writer and activist Haifa Zangana discussed a new threat to Iraqi women in the form of a new personal status law, covering marriage, divorce, inheritance and adoption, based on Shi’ite laws, called the Ja’fari Law. A draft of this law was recently approved by the Council of Ministers and will progress to parliament. Intended to replace the existing law, enacted in 1959, “considered to be the most protective of women’s rights in the Arab countries”, the new law introduces a number of controversial stipulations, such as lowering the legal age of marriage for females to 9 and males to 15, and even lower with the consent of a legal guardian; the current legal age of marriage is 18 for both sexes.
More controversial moves include Article 126 which provides that “husbands are not required to pay financial support (nafaqah) when their wife is either a minor or a senior and hence unable to sexually satisfy them” and Article 63 which allows “temporary” marriages for Shi’ite men to marry non-Muslim women. Such marriages offer no protection to women and are often likened to prostitution; the man can also terminate the “temporary” agreement at will. According to Zangana, “Temporary marriage and unregistered marriages in civil courts were prohibited before 2003 but are on the increase among widows and poor women since then.”
Iraq’s laws have previously been framed to cover all of its different religious communities. As well as targeting women and children, opening the door to child marriages, sex trafficking, and other abuses, some of the provisions breach Iraqi laws, international law and UN conventions on human rights that Iraq is a state party to. Zangana asserted that this new proposed law has nothing to do with the Islamic faith. This view is held by the Iraqi Association of Muslim Scholars too; in a strongly-worded statement in response to political approval of the law, on 12 March, it stated that the law would create divisions in Iraqi society and fragment its unified character, replacing it with sectarianism, and raised similar concerns to those at the meeting, that the law is being pushed forward on a political pretext aimed at promoting sectarianism to gain votes, “even at the expense of the destruction of the fabric of Iraqi society.”
Beyond the risk to women, which Zangana describes as “degrading” for both Iraqi men and women alike, is the risk to the unity of the state, should other religious groups, such as Sunni Muslims or Christian denominations choose to have laws introduced that only affect their own religious laws. The risk of sectarian fragmentation that has grown exponentially since the 2003 occupation was raised as a concern by many Iraqi men and women attending the meeting. One man accused forces intent on promoting sectarianism of “destroying the country from within”.
As chair of the meeting, Jeremy Corbyn MP stated that more needs to be done to move the abuse of women in Iraq back to the centre stage and highlight the systematic worsening of human rights in Iraq, which fails to attract much attention. Tadhamun provided Jeremy Corbyn with a briefing of the issues raised for him to present at meetings at the UN in Geneva around the eleventh anniversary of the war. Corbyn suggested that an early day motion (EDM) be put together following the parliamentary meeting to raise the awareness of politicians of the situation, as well as a statement to be presented by a delegation to visit the Foreign Office covering the concerns raised at the meeting to discuss what Britain can do. One of the recommendations made in the HRW report is that foreign states must condition aid and trade on Iraq’s compliance with its international law obligations.